After disappointing performances in crucial moments last season, Nebraska coach Mike Riley made several bold decisions in his coaching staff.
Last season, the Huskers finished 10th in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed. They also ranked 10th in the conference in passing yards per game.
In January, Riley relieved defensive coordinator Mark Banker after working with him for 20 seasons.
When Riley changed his staff, he also changed his scheme. Riley recruited former Connecticut head coach Bob Diaco as Banker’s replacement.
Despite going 11-26 as a head coach, Diaco improved Connecticut’s defense, lowering the allowed 30 points per game when he arrived, to just 19.5 points per game two years later.
When Diaco was at Notre Dame, he built the team into one of the best in the country, culminating in a national championship appearance in 2013 led by Heisman-finalist linebacker Manti Te’o.
With the coaching change, the Huskers are switching from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4, replacing a defensive lineman with a linebacker.
In a 4-3 defense, the defensive linemen create most of the pressure on the offense, whereas in a 3-4 the linemen are responsible for blocking the offensive line for the linebackers to create more pressure.
The debate between the two schemes has been raging for years now, but with half the NFL using the 3-4 and the other half using the 4-3, there appears to be proven success for each.
While changing schemes can take a year or two to work, Nebraska finds itself transitioning smoothly thanks to the current personnel. The Huskers have a solid core of experienced linebackers led by senior Chris Weber and junior Dedrick Young II. Outside linebackers Marcus Newby and Luke Gifford will have an increased responsibility in the system to pressure the offense.
On the defensive line, the Huskers will be led by junior standout Freedom Akinmoladun and 2016 Nebraska Most Improved Player Carlos Davis. There will be more depth than previous years at this position as redshirt sophomores DaiShon Neal and Khalil Davis are looking to take the next step with an expected increase in playing time.
While Nebraska’s defense made drastic improvements last season, they still struggled in important situations. In four games against ranked opponents, the Huskers allowed nearly 39 points per game. In their other nine games, they held their opponents to 17 per game. This has been a common theme for Nebraska for a long time now. Blowout losses against ranked opponents was a major reason for Nebraska making a coaching change two years ago.
In Diaco’s tenure at Connecticut, his defenses allowed 26 points per game against ranked opponents. His defenses at Notre Dame allowed 22 points per game against ranked opponents, but most notably surrendered 42 points against Alabama in the 2013 National Championship Game. This year, Nebraska has three opponents in the AP Preseason top 10.
While most of the attention on defense will be drawn to the scheme change, the most crucial part of the unit will likely be the part that didn’t change: the secondary. With potential matchups against some of the top quarterbacks in not just the Big Ten but also the country, the secondary will have to step up to keep the Huskers in games.
Nebraska’s secondary was already dealt a crushing blow when senior cornerback Chris Jones announced he would miss up to six weeks with a torn meniscus. This puts more pressure on corners Lamar Jackson and Eric Lee Jr., two highly touted recruits that will receive a lot more playing time this year.
Mike Riley made waves this past winter when he fired his long-time assistant for one of the top coordinators in the game. While it may take time, the risk is certainly worth the reward.